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U.S. Army commits up to $11 million for polymer research

Case Western Reserve University researchers teamed up with the U.S. Army and a trio of industry partners to further their signature work in manufacturing approaches for lightweight and high-performance polymeric materials.

A new five-year agreement awards $5.4 million (with the potential for up to $11 million) to a team led by Case Western Reserve, and includes a subcontract to PolymerPlus LLC, a Cleveland-based polymeric development company founded at the university in 2010, to lead production scale-up. Some of the funds will go to two other subcontractors, according to the Army’s award notice.

The team will collaborate with staff at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Command’s Army Research Laboratory, in Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, to design materials and advanced manufacturing approaches for high-performance composites that have potential applications in protection systems and weapons.

The novel additive manufacturing technology, pioneered at a small scale in the labs at Case Western Reserve and being scaled to larger capacity at PolymerPlus, essentially transforms multiple polymeric materials into sheets that can have hundreds or even thousands of individual layers. The expected result: new materials that are strong, lightweight and durable.

“Case Western Reserve University and PolymerPlus can continuously manufacture complex combinations of materials into unique structures that are difficult to generate even with sophisticated laboratory techniques,” said Joseph Lenhart, chief of the Polymers Branch at the Army lab. “We see tremendous opportunities for improving the performance of protective systems and weapons. Longer term, we are excited about the applications we have not even imagined.”

Case Western Reserve is home to the nation’s first stand-alone polymer department and the first to offer a Bachelor of Science program in polymer science accredited by ABET, a non-profit that evaluates college and university programs in applied and natural science, computing, engineering and engineering technology.

Macromolecular science and engineering is the study of the synthesis, structure, processing and properties of polymers—the giant molecules that form the basis of synthetic materials, including plastics, fibers, rubber, films, paints, membranes and adhesives.  

Strong polymer partnership 

In the new project, Case Western Reserve researchers will experiment with new combinations of ultra-thin plastics and send them to PolymerPlus for larger-scale processing, said Gary Wnek, chair of the Macromolecular Science and Engineering Department in the Case School of Engineering and lead researcher on the project.

“It’s a great partnership because you don’t want to invest too many resources in new material development until you can try it out first at a smaller scale,” Wnek said.  “We know the expectations are high, that the Army wants us to do not only good research, demonstrated by publishing papers, but also translational research that can be used.”

Wnek said the Army funding will go toward equipment at the university—including an electron microscope—and for hiring additional graduate students and post-doctoral scholars in the lab.

“I can’t emphasize enough how crucial it is for the Army to engage with academia across the country and with industry to rapidly push novel concepts into reality in advanced materials and manufacturing,” said Dr. Mark Tschopp, ARL Central Regional Director. “What is great about this effort is that there are ARL staff scientists stationed out here in the Midwest to improve collaboration and communication with our partners, helping to bring the subject matter expertise and unique facilities of all parties to bear on this critical application. Together, we are methodically tackling challenging problems aimed at producing outcomes of impact for the Army.”

PolymerPlus, recently acquired in a multi-million-dollar deal by Texas-based Peak Nanosystems LLC, will be the primary industry partner for the project.

“What we’re looking to do is use our process to combine low- to mid-cost plastics—things like milk jugs and trash bags at a cost of about $3 a pound—to create a strong, flexible material equal to things like Super Kevlar, which are about $100 a pound,” said company President Mike Ponting, a Case Western Reserve alumnus. He said that the Army has “seen some of the initial samples and technology, but now they want to see how far we can take this.”

PolymerPlus was co-founded in 2010 by Eric Baer, Distinguished University Professor, founder of the Department of Macromolecular Science and Engineering and the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Layered Polymeric Systems, along with Ponting and Deepak Langhe.

Congressional support 

The project was supported by two Ohio members of Congress, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), and Rep. Tim Ryan (OH-13). Both are members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

Kaptur noted Ohio’s “storied manufacturing legacy,” especially in regards to “research and development of products that support our national defense.

“Partnerships such as this will carry that legacy forward,” she said, adding that she applauded the ingenuity of the Case Western Reserve scientists “as exemplars for future generations to understand how science can improve our weapons and armor systems to keep our service members safe.” 

Ryan said that the name Case Western Reserve has “always been synonymous with academic excellence and their groundbreaking research and development is known worldwide” and that “this  (award) will help them design lighter, stronger and faster materials for our soldiers.”

About the author

Aditya Chandavarkar

Aditya Chandavarkar

Aditya Chandavarkar is a established entrepreneur with business interests in manufacturing, innovative technology and consulting. He is the co-founder of CNT Expositions and Services (acronym for Catalysing New Technologies), which was subsequently formed by the acquisition of Inkjet Forum India – a leading knowledge sharing platform for inkjet printing technology founded by him. At Inkjet Forum India, Aditya was single handedly responsible for conceptualizing and organizing conferences and educations programs, in the area of digital textile printing and industrial inkjet.